Samuel Niyogakizaaka Nelly G and Elie Nsengimana are former street kids with a shared musical ambition.
They are what you would call “underground”, or “up-and-coming artistes, and they have big dreams too: dreams to become bona fide Rwandan rappers, so that they can address the plight of children who still face the same hard knock street life they once endured, through music.
In fact, their stage name, Time Boys, tries to capture some of that reality. They believe that time is the answer to all major problems people face in society.
The two met on the streets of Kigali, from where their musical ambitions were born.
Says Elie Nsengimana, who goes by the stage name King Dollar:
“Singing is and has always been my talent. When I was still on the streets I would listen to hip hop songs, and after one week I would be able to sing it perfectly.”
Nsengimana was born in Kibuye, Karongi district, in the Western Province, although he never got to know any of his parents. Instead, it was an old lady who took him in, but she too passed away when he was just eight years old.
Her death prompted the young boy to embark on the uncertain journey back to his village, although sad news awaited him: his parents had been killed in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Worse still, he was the only child they had left behind. One day while out playing football, a friend of his convinced Nsengimana to come with him to Kigali, where life was presumably much better. He readily agreed, desperate for a breakthrough following the death of his caretaker.
“He took me to Nyamirambo, at a place called Mirongwine and told me to stay there and wait for him shortly as he finished some things, but he never returned,” Nsengimana recounts the rude welcome he received in Kigali.
He adds forlornly:“That is how my life as a street boy started.”
While Nsengimana never saw any of his parents, his friend and musical partner Niyogakiza knew his father until the age of 15, when the old man passed on.
This was a severe blow to the young man, who had never known a mother.
The 22-year-old was born in Gikondo, a Kigali suburb, from where he gradually slipped into street life after his father’s death.
He spent five years on the streets, until the day the police rounded him and several others, including his future musical partner Nsengimana. They were whisked off to jail in Kabuga.
“While on the streets, I either ate from dustbins or I would steal. I slept under bridges, in tunnels, in bushes, or abandoned houses,” he recalls.
The harsh streets also introduced him to the world of drugs.
It was from there that an organisation that looks after former street children came to their rescue; they wanted to rehabilitate these former street kids.
“They took us back to school at Les Enfant de Dieu, an orphanage in Ndera sector, Gasabo district.”
Niyogakiza joined P5, while his colleague Nsengimana was a class ahead. “I studied brick-laying and construction while he went for welding.”
One lucky day, a tour operator called Davidson Mugisha visited the orphanage with a group of tourists. While the street kids entertained the visitors with song and dance, Mugisha noticed the two boys as they delivered rap.
He was impressed by their performance and after the tour, caught up with them for a chat.
Realising that they were street kids with musical ambitions, he gave them a business card, asking them to call him sometime for another chat. His idea was that they make the trip to Kigali to forge a way forward for their budding music careers.
Niyogakiza recalls that though they warmed up to the idea, it wasn’t easy to leave the orphanage immediately, so they had to wait.
“The orphanage only paid for street kids up to P6. After that, one had to leave the orphanage and return home so as to create room for other beneficiaries,” Niyogakiza recounts, adding, “So Nsengimana left the orphanage a year before me, and this kind of interrupted our music.”
Soon, the time would come for him to also quit the orphanage after his P6. But there was one problem; he had nowhere to return to as home.
“I did not have a family or relatives to return to, so I wrote to the headmaster requesting the school to extend my scholarship.”
Luckily, his wish was granted, and he proceeded to P6.
“After primary six, I went for my internship at a company called Hector, where I was involved in construction work and other odd jobs,” says Niyogakiza.
Luckily, his internship was paid for, and with this small money he rented out a small room, effectively starting out life on his own.
More importantly, he embarked on the search for his lost musical partner, Nsengimana, a search that was not easy, because where do you start to look for a street person with no permanent address?
They eventually met, and their first instinct was to call up the man that had shown so much interest in their music while at the orphanage.
And once the duo eventually made it to Kigali, they made their plea - they wanted sponsorship for studio time to record their songs.
Realising that the two had no recorded songs to their name yet, courtesy of financial constraints, he offered them a recording opportunity at a studio in Kanombe (Black Gang Studios) where the duo released their first song, Kuri Street, in 2010.
Says Mugisha, who operates a tour company called Wildlife Tours Rwanda, “The first thing I did when I met them was build hope in them, to demonstrate to them that success is about being honest, patient, hardworking, and having a long-term vision.”
Mugisha never tired of telling the boys that one day, things would change for them, and for the better.
“Above all, I always emphasise to them that all successful people have come from far.”
He says that even the small financial support he extends to the boys is secondary to the moral one.
“I do it at a personal level, but the company, Wildlife Tours Rwanda, also helps them as part of its corporate social responsibility.”
The duo has recorded a few other songs, like AgahindakuMwari, and King of Hip Hop, all from Black Gang Studios. However, they still have a handful of songs that are yet to be recorded.
When I asked for an acapella session at the end of the interview, it went on and on and on, until I had to ask them to stop.